Jeff Evans: Finding balance by holding back
One of the defining characteristics of the craft beer revolution has been a relentless emphasis on flavour.
For decades, the international beer market was built on consistency, predictability and restraint – a don’t-scare-the-horses approach to brewing that raised multi-billion pound profits and is still, of course, the dominant part of the industry today. But a new area of the market has opened up in the past 40 years to challenge this, an area in which distinctiveness and intensity of taste are paramount.
To differentiate themselves from the giant players, the fledgling craft brewers of the US in the 1980s set out to produce beers that stood out, that had personality and that appealed to a public that had been grossly ignored for decades. They reaped the rewards and their success did not go unnoticed elsewhere in the world, which is why we’ve seen a staggering growth of brewery numbers in most countries, with nearly all the new arrivals putting big flavour – generally hop-inspired – right at the top of the business plans. The market has broadened as people in search of a drink with character have migrated to beer from other products.
Of course, big taste does not necessarily equal great beer. I’ve been served plenty of unpalatable rubbish that proves the old adage that it is quality not quantity that matters. I include in this beers so unbalanced that I’ve almost gagged on the dryness and bitterness of the finish and others so overloaded with pungently fruity or floral hops that it seemed I was drowning in grapefruit juice or choking on air freshener. That said, there are so many brilliant, full-flavoured beers around that deliver massively on the taste front and yet – crucially – also strike the happy medium between boldness and finesse. For me, it is not how dynamically tasty a beer is that makes me want to drink it. Balance and harmony of flavours are equally important, if not more so.
I was reminded of this again over Christmas when I opened a bottle of Wye Valley’s Butty Bach. This amber-coloured beer is not the most forceful of British ales, but it is perfectly balanced, wonderfully moreish and slips down extremely easily. It’s a very fine best bitter. I could name any number of similar beers that have the same qualities, and not all of them British. Take Erdinger Weissbier, for example. There are undoubtedly German wheat beers on the market that are much more flavoursome but this beer is so wonderfully elegant and refreshing, disguising its alcohol brilliantly and layering the palate with subtle notes of apple, vanilla, banana and clove. Like Butty Bach, it is very skilfully brewed. It doesn’t try too hard and is all the more satisfying as a result.
Beers like these are generally not the sort to win awards in major competitions, because they don’t leap out of the glass and grab you by the taste buds, but they are nonetheless champion beers in my estimation. Give them time, have the patience to let the delicate flavours unfold as you slowly drain the glass and sit back and enjoy nuances of character that you simply don’t get when a beer is unashamedly bold and forceful right from the first sip.
If you’re looking for something to enjoy with a good book, to accompany a little relaxing music or to simply oil the wheels of a conversation with an old mate, beers like these are just perfect. Sometimes – in beer as in so many other areas – less is more.
Jeff Evans is the Chairman of the International Beer Challenge